At a recent conference, I attended a class taught by Ally Condie where she went over the nuances of setting in story. As someone who strives to make my settings rich, and even feel like another character, it was something I was very interested in. While there were many concepts that she discussed that were valuable and should be integrated, the two that I have been thinking about for the longest are micro and macro settings.
When we are in the process of developing characters, we often weave in information about the big (jobs, family life, hobbies, appearances) and the small (likes, dislikes, moments of vulnerability, doubt, joy, satisfaction). By doing so, we are able to hone a deeper understanding of the characters and convey that depth to readers.
Dedicating the same amount of attention to setting can add another layer to the story and it doesn’t have to be done with pages of purple prose.
This is the way that you get the reader settled in the world of the story. The attention needs to be focused on both the familiar and the unique. This needs to be done soon in the story in order to allow people who have never been there to become acquainted enough that transitions through the story DO NOT pull them from the plot to get settled again. If you are dealing with a real-world place, it also needs to have a few elements that allow those who have been there to identify with the setting correctly: humidity, sounds, travel methods, famous markers, etc. are all essential to success.
These are three books (by WITS contributors) who nail the macro setting. I have never been to any of the settings selected for these books, but within pages, I was immersed in the setting in a way that made it feel familiar. Even though I was reading in my home in southern Utah, I could get a sense of the horses in The Distance Home, longed for the southern atmosphere present in The River Witch, could feel the familiarity and isolation of a small town in The Far End of Happy.
This is where you make the setting personal to the character(s). This is your opportunity as a writer to really pull the reader into the world you have created. By utilizing quality micro descriptions in the storytelling, you can begin to evoke an emotional connection between the character, setting and reader. Whether it be the smell of horses that welcomes someone to an unexpected home, the songs of the river, the people, and memories that solidify the need to heal, or an old house with so much potential that mirrors the relationship and lives now in peril, dropping in little bits of detail will enhance the readers ability to relate to the character.
How to Create Macro and Micro Settings:
There is a great temptation when it comes to any kind of description so simply tell what it looks like, but that would be seriously handicapping the potential of the setting to feel real. In order to accomplish this appropriately, we, as writers, need to really pay attention to the way that we, and people around us, engage with their setting. Orly Konig has written about how to write with all your senses, and that's a great place for us to start.
Consider the place in your hometown where you can go to see people who you know - is it a bar? a restaurant? a local activity? While there, what would you see and feel? Is the weather warm? Humid? Just breezy enough to need a jacket?
Now consider someone, like me, who may have never been there. If you like this place, how would you convey the sense of pride that comes with it? How would you let me know about the things that can sometimes make this place less than desirable? What tips and tricks would you share about negotiating the setting, the people, who to watch for, who to avoid? Are there cultural nuances that you love? Hate? Is it different for you because you are a "homegrown product" of the area? How about a newbie?
Through honing our awareness of the grandeur and subtlety of our own setting, we can become better prepared to convey the same in our story, adding a depth to our craft that will enhance the experience for readers even more.
What stories have you read that enveloped you in the setting? What tips do you have for others trying to create that just right atmosphere?
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Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as a board member for the Women's Fiction Writers Association. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.